James Rodriguez has launched his coin. Just days before the World Cup’s kick-off, the crocked Colombian midfielder announced the creation of JR10, his personal cryptocurrency, which proud holders can parlay into “football-related souvenirs, fan club meetings and other perks related to the athlete”. According to SelfSell, a Chinese company that took care of the technicalities, the advance online auction of a small batch of crypto-tokens raked in $500,000 — in 12 seconds.
After one year of tokenmania — with its colourful cast of chancers, speculators, and opportunistic celebrities — you would be justified for eye-rolling at the news that football players are minting their own currencies. But you should fight back that reaction: Rodriguez is onto something; he is a pioneer. In fact, every football player should issue a coin.
Why? First of all, it would really broaden the sport’s appeal. For a large chunk of the world’s population, football is a snoozefest. Too many passes that achieve nothing; too much histrionics; too much dead time. More seriously – much more seriously — when watching football, many feel like they have no skin in the game: why should they care about one particular bunch of athletes winning over the other? What’s in it for them? It’s not like ordinary people are actually winning something tangible, is it? (Patriotic pride is not tangible.)
Cryptocurrency can change that overnight. Picture this: every player would create his or her own coin. There will be whacky coin names — BitKane, Cointinho, Cristiano Ronaldoken — lots of tacky graphics and videos, and definitely some token launch parties on New York rooftops and French Riviera yachts.
What use those coins would actually have is a negligible question. A cryptocurrency project called EOS raised $4 billion (in bitcoin and other cryptocurrency) selling coins that “have no rights, uses or attributes”. That’s the route most football players should go down with their coins. Some people would buy coins as long as they are induced to believe they could be exchanged for an unspecified something at some point in the future; most people, though, would just jump at the opportunity to speculate.
If footballer coins behave anything like the hundreds of cryptocurrency tokens that have mushroomed over the last months — before ignominiously crashing, but that’s one for another time — they would immediately start being traded on online secondary markets and cryptocurrency exchanges, where they could be converted to bitcoin or state-issued money like dollars or pounds.
Most footballer coins will initially be worth little, but speculation orchestrated through Telegram messaging groups could make their price oscillate wildly. Batted around by cryptotraders’ animal spirits, even coins issued by dud players could fleetingly become valuable.
Mindless speculation will not be the whole story, though. I assume that, to a certain extent, the price of coins would be influenced by how their respective footballers perform in a game: coin-holders will dump tokens issued by players that are faffing about, or scoring own-goals — and vie with each other to get hold of coins issued by rising stars. As with market stocks, the price of each footballer coin would wax and wane according to the iron laws of demand and supply. And all heavily regulated, of course.
There certainly are some analogies between footballer coin trading and sports gambling; but there would be substantial differences, too. Chief among them: the trading would be happening in real time. Taking a punt on a game’s outcome is a discrete action: once you have paid the bookmaker, you cannot adjust your bet. In contrast, footballer coin trading would entail frantically readjusting your investment throughout the game, depending on how your coin-issuing player performs on the field.
Suddenly, the boring spectacle of 22 hunks kicking a sphere would become something else entirely: an animated price chart for 22 different financial assets. (I wouldn’t be surprised if broadcasters actually started displaying such charts during the game.) People who couldn't care less about football would find a reason to watch it — and to find it thrilling.
Coins might also be used as an incentive system. If footballers are anything like cryptocurrency entrepreneurs, not only they will bag a lot of money or cryptocurrency by auctioning their coins, but will also retain a bundle of their own coins for themselves — and probably a hefty bundle, like 30 or 40 per cent of the whole shebang.
What that means is that any rise in the price of the coins could directly benefit players; by extension, what that means is that players will want to behave in ways that maximise their personal cryptocurrencies’ value. (One might be tempted to dismiss this on the grounds that football players already collect millionaire paycheques. I would object that: a) human greed is usually a safe horse to bet on, and b) the price spikes of certain cryptocurrencies can at times be so vertiginous that even moneyed athletes will think twice before shrugging them off.)
This dynamic would present coin-holders and speculators with a formidable gift: the power to financially nudge footballers into certain courses of action. A player who keeps losing the ball or making stupid passes would promptly be notified — on his smartwatch, or directly on a massive screen hanging over the goal — that his fans are dumping his coins by the bucketloads, and his net worth is down by some £50 million as a consequence. A player on a good day, instead, will be rewarded with a boost to the value of his coin stash.
In the libertarian future all cryptocurrency fans long for, this mechanism could eventually come to replace the current, obsolete salary-based system, and players would be paid directly by their fans-cum-speculators.
In a grittier version of that same future, coin price manipulation could simply create a new way of rigging games: anonymous yet whalish investors could strategically dump coins to punish a goalkeeper who keeps pulling off wonder saves — and then pump up the price of the goalkeeper’s coin when he gets the message and starts dropping clangers. There would be bribes, counter-bribes, and a smorgasbord of new scenarios to explore: what if a striker and a goalkeeper facing off before a penalty tried to gain an edge by subtly threatening to crash each other’s coins? What if clubs started issuing coins in competition with players? What if referees started issuing coins?
It would be a dirty, corrupt affair — but probably not much dirtier and more corrupt than it is today. Plus, it will all be totally transparent, inscribed on a public blockchain for everyone’s perusal. More importantly, it’ll be exciting.
Once the model becomes established, one can see this finding applications even outside of the football pitch. Capricious fans might decide to take their coin game up a notch, and use tokens to slap down or recompense football players for other sorts of behaviours. Some might take exception to a midfielder’s new sports car — too tacky, or maybe not environmentally friendly enough — and organise a campaign to bring down his coin; others might want to high-five them over a new haircut, and buy some coins to show their appreciation.
For some players, this constant scrutiny, coupled with the potential for financial bludgeoning, would be a nightmare. More avaricious players could embrace this by live-streaming their days, and just fine-tune their life choices depending on what the coins suggest.
Retiring will be tricky. Players — who probably would come to think of their coin bundle as a retirement fund — will have to carefully plan their exit, lest hordes of crazed fans decide to dump all the tokens associated with a has-been. Cashing out before retiring is a no-go: it’s all on the public blockchain, and people would instantly sniff a rat. The best option, then, would be segueing into another career — football managers, sports commentators, crooners, entertainers — which ensures that those coins remain worth having. In this way, everybody wins: football player get to keep the golden retirement, the post-career job opportunities, and the millionaire coin bundle; fans will be entertained by their heroes, for years, or decades, keeping open the option of financially drubbing them if they stop being funny.
Death is the ultimate, eventual, as-yet-insurmountable snag, but, in a way, it is also the natural denouement of it all. Coins that had never been converted into “football-related souvenirs, fan club meetings and other perks related to the athlete” would instantly become free passes to attend the funeral, or send flowers through a dedicated app. Thousands of people will flood the graveyards, filled with a sacred energy: the energy of fans who used to despise football and yawn during matches, but have finally learnt to love the beautiful game.